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Imagine Your Children Are Dead

Marcus Aurelius

Imagining the loss of your children was one of the recommendations of the Stoic school of philosophy which included among its members Epictetus (55 AD – 135 AD), Marcus Aurelius (121 AD -180 AD), Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD) and Musonius Rufus (1st century AD). Stoicism is the western equivalent of Zen Buddhism minus the meditation. Among other things the Stoics taught that destructive emotions such as anger, fear, anxiety, and dissatisfaction are all caused by errors in thinking, ideas that inspired Albert Ellis,  the grandfather of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

The core of Stoic philosophy was that to have a good and meaningful life you need to overcome your insatiability. As a financial planner I’ve listened to more than my fair share of goals and desires that clients believed would bring them happiness. The problem is that once a goal or desire has been achieved we tend to adapt to its presence and don’t find it as desirable as we once did. Eventually we feel just as dissatisfied as before and a new goal or desire emerges as the process rinses and repeats.  The solution, thought the Stoics, was to develop techniques to help you want what you have rather than what you think you need.

Arguably the most important technique the Stoics developed was Negative Visualization, imagining the loss of things we value, whether it be our health, our job, our friends, our spouse or our home. Doing this, they believed, would help prevent us from taking these things for granted and help us value them more than we would otherwise. Furthermore, the Stoics advised that we periodically remind ourselves that this day could also be our last. In his book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, William Irvine says:

“Such reflection, rather than converting us into hedonists, will make us appreciate how wonderful it is that we are alive and have the opportunity to fill this day with activity. This in turn will make it less likely that we will squander our days. In other words, when the Stoics counsel us to live each day as if it were our last, their goal is not to change our activities but to change our state of mind as we carry out those activities. In particular, they don’t want us to stop thinking about or planning for tomorrow; instead they want us, as we think about and plan for tomorrow, to remember to appreciate today.”

Instead of spending our time thinking about the things we want the Stoics advised spending that time thinking about the things we already have and how much we would miss them if they were no longer here. If you doubt the power of this technique watch this brief video.

The Stoics also advised practicing poverty and/or experimenting with some voluntary discomfort. In today’s world this would translate into going camping or backpacking instead of splashing out on luxury hotels, underdressing in cold weather or eating simpler and less processed foods. By doing so we learn to appreciate good hotels, warm clothes and rich food while at the same time learning that we can do without these things and eliminating the fear that one day we might have to. If we practice Negative Visualization regularly the Stoics thought we would come to experience joy, the same joy that a young child feels because every experience is new and exciting.

The wisdom of the Stoics is the same wisdom that virtually every important sage, philosopher and spiritual leader has arrived at independently through the ages, namely, that if you seek calm and contentment in life, it’s easier to change your own desires than it is to change the world.

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“Man is affected not by events but by the view he takes of them.”

Epictetus (55 AD – 135 AD)

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill

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64 Comments on “Imagine Your Children Are Dead”

  1. andreakmetova Says:

    Wonderfully written and structured post. If all of your posts are like that…..you are now responsible for distracting me from my studies by reading your blog 🙂 🙂 Thanks a lot 🙂

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you for your kind words. In case you are interested the Stoic solution to exam stress was to make your goal not the passing of the exam, but simply doing your best. It is not in your control to pass exams but it is in your control to do your best. Consequently, according to the Stoics, as long as you do the best you can you will be able to maintain tranquility of mind.

      Reply

      • andreakmetova Says:

        No matter how much I read about Stoics, I would never come to conclusion that their attitude towards how to deal with stress is as simple and as clever like what you wrote 🙂 Thank You, I’ll definitely change my attitude 🙂

        Reply

  2. bravesmartbold Says:

    I’ve done this more than once, and it makes me stop. Everything stops. Then, I see this everything so plainly and simply, with appreciation.

    Reply

  3. Steve Says:

    Particularly interesting and useful advice (I’m thinking specifically about third paragraph from the end…not as much the title!) Few people today seem likely to take the advice…which is great for the economy in the short-run, but poor for the long-term financial security of most who lack the ability to delay gratification or appreciate what they have rather than what they want. (Thomas Jefferson, of course, seemed afflicted by this very issue…)

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Steve, sorry about the title, Despite my Stoicism I couldn’t resist the impulse 🙂 You’re correct that few people behave stoically today. It’s as if evolution has endowed us with a range of dysfunctional emotions that have to be tamed before we can have tranquility of mind. Aquisitiveness probably had an advantage in our evolutionary past, both in terms of survival and pecking order, but now it’s like an alabatross around our necks.

      Reply

  4. becwillmylife Says:

    Your title definitely grabbed my attention. My philosophy on life has certainly changed over the years. Like most, I went through a period of trying to figure out who I am. Unlike some, I also experienced a self indulgent period where I thought if I could afford it why not buy it. Thankfully, that lifestyle was unlike me and short lived. At this point of my life, I handle the so-called highs and lows with more grace and wisdom and far less drama. The Stoic’s were certainly wise. It is truly when you wake up content with another day that you can enjoy life more fully. Everything else becomes gravy.

    Reply

  5. chr1 Says:

    Well said. Thanks, Malcolm.

    Reply

  6. NicoLite Великий Says:

    poverty and discomfort weren’t exactly a choice of mine, but I endured them, and now I am more content with the job that I have than most people in it, and I set realistic (i.e. achievable) goals, like having a normal life 😉 because that’s what extraordinary people really want (that’s me being humble)

    Reply

  7. Bonnie Marshall Says:

    Stoicism was the stabilizing philosophy of my mother…and I am her daughter.

    Reply

  8. aaforringer Says:

    Great post again Malcolm. Stealing your qoute at the end and, you will see it on my site sometime next year in a daily posting.
    Never really labeled my outlook on life now I know, I have leanings toward being a Stoic.

    Reply

  9. History of Capitalism Says:

    Epicureanism all the way. Mostly because The Swerve is the coolest thing.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you. I’ve just bought ‘The Swerve’ so I will reserve judgment until I’ve read it. It looks like a fascinating read.

      Reply

      • History of Capitalism Says:

        Ah! I saw that someone had written a book called The Swerve but I haven’t read it yet? I was talking about the philosophical concept that crops up in Lucretius from which the book’s title is obviously derived. I think his book is specifically about documents uncovered during the Renaissance and it did look very interesting… tell me how it is.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          The ‘Swerve’ related to atoms and by implication to free will but I don’t see why the ethics of the Epicureans and the Stoics can’t be studied separately from their physics. I am sure each school argued that their system was a coherent whole and one component was not valid without the other. However, in the light of modern science what’s wrong with just picking what seems to work from their ethics? In my view stoicism has more to offer us than the hedonism of the Epicureans but do let me know if and why you think this is wrong.

    • History of Capitalism Says:

      Ah! I see no problem with it either! I just love to talk about The Swerve! While the Epicurean ethics are problematical in many regards, they are not as hedonistic as often assumed (if memory serves me correctly, I haven’t read the Stoics or Epicureans in a few years now and it all just gets buried and becomes a blur very quickly). Stoics and Epicureans both hugely valued stability, and the Stoics took that in the direction of eliminating everything on which they were dependent, while the Epicureans ultimately advocated cultivating simple pleasures and living reasonably, which really doesn’t seem too unreasonable. However, it’s one of my (many) gripes when it comes to the Liberal tradition that it incorrectly characterizes the individual or the basic experiences/realities of personhood and this defective characterization of the individual is sadly foundational to much of our political and economic thought. With that in mind, it would be hypocritical of me to then let the Epicureans slide for concluding that pleasure is the highest good or that the ideal life would be one in which all negative experiences had been removed… on the issue of the highest good I always want to defer to Aristotle… not just the exaltation of wisdom as the core of or precondition for all virtue but also specifically the apocryphal account at the end of the Nicomachean Ethics where he reminds us that, in spite of what Plato said, that it is friendship and not justice that is the highest good.

      Anyway, sorry for the ramble, I wasn’t trying to diss your discussion of the Stoics in any capacity, and I agree whole-heartedly that there is an immense amount offered up by these texts.

      Reply

      • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

        Interesting comments and you’re right that hedonism meant something to the Epicureans very different from how we understand the word. While I don’t think it’s relevant to the post I am interested to learn in what way you think the Liberal tradition incorrectly characterizes the individual.

        Reply

      • History of Capitalism Says:

        Ach! I have been mulling over, for some time, an articulation of the basics of a critique of the liberal tradition. It’s an important critique but also one which has to fight to not be read through or purely in regards to Marx’s, whose critique still lingers in many places.

        On the one hand, there are issues larger than I can really elaborate upon here that pertain to speaking human nature in an historical context, and that often manifest as issues of delineating the individual along certain axes, ie talking about, say, social relations as an attribute of particular humans and not something which should be brought up and into characterizations of historicized human natures from the outset. That is to say, the liberal tradition seems prone to stating an ahistorical understanding of “man” and then placing potential social relations as externalities heaped on top later… either characterized as shackles or as social capital, both of which are disengenious characterizations of social relations, which should be brought in from the outset in a properly historicized discourse of and on humans.

        There are also, of course, more concrete issues of characterization about rationality, the avoidance of pain or seeking of pleasure, the dogged pursuit of self-interest, which are used as a woeful starting point and remain totally specious characterizations of human behavior or experience. However, it is my understanding (I may be misinformed on this front) is that these issues are extirpated in the context of liberal economic thought around the turn of the 20th century in favor of understanding the economy as a rational space, replacing this core with a theorization of market behavior only in terms of rational preferences, so the rhetoric of pleasure and pain present in, say, English-language Physiocrats can only be read as avant la lettre if we are also expressing discomfort about the current state of the liberal tradition. I am still trying to work through the latter part of this.

        Ultimately, the faulty, ahistorical characterizations of the individual that shoot through the liberal tradition tend to have, as their common denominator, an inability to grapple with, but also an obsession with or fetishization of, human suffering, (mocked so perfectly by Thomas Mann in Magic Mountain) and a so-called exaltation of human difference which requires that people already be homogeneous in all substantive forms before difference is allowed or can be stomached, and the parameters of that homogeneity always seem to be really disturbingly dictated by factors that could only be characterized as historical, economic or political. The result is the critique that liberalism reduces human difference to wearing silly costumes.

        Again, this is a ramble, it is bursting at the seems, there are more different faultlines that I have no even begun to address here, I will try to get my thoughts straight on this… one of the problems is finding the particular incarnations of the liberal tradition against which I am speaking, because it is at once so diverse and also so homogeneous… and when the time comes I will post it on my blog in a form that will be, among other things, better written and proofread. Hopefully it will be an exercise that, among other things, helps me get my head straight.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          I have always believed the ahistorical critique of liberalism to be misplaced, especially if you include in the liberal tradition thinkers such as Adam Smith (moral sentiments), Friedrich Hayek (institutions) and Isaiah Berlin (value pluralism).

      • History of Capitalism Says:

        P.S. Sorry for such a long and derailing post, it just felt like a cop-out to say “uhhh a lot of stuff, I’ll leave it for later on my own blog,” so I felt that I needed to say something at this point, but I will, in fact, as stated above, give this a better treatment later on my own blog, which is the appropriate venue.

        Reply

  10. L. Marie Says:

    I see why you’re Freshly Pressed. Interesting thoughts on Stoicism. I think it all depends on what you’re focusing on. If you have to have everything RIGHT NOW–the ultimate car, the dream house, etc. in order to keep up with the Joneses, you might live far above your means. I wish I’d learned to avoid this when I was an undergrad. I wouldn’t have made some of the financial decisions I made.

    Reply

  11. Iris Weaver Says:

    Hmmm, I never thought about the Stoic philosophy before. I was barely aware there was such a school of philosophy. Thought I try to avoid “negative” things in my life, having spent far too much time in my life being “negative”, I do like the Stoic ideas. I find that I do indeed practice some of the things you wrote about and that as my attitudes and ideas have changed, so has my level of happiness and contentment.

    As NicoleLite said poverty hasn’t been a choice of mine, but it has informed my life and my understanding of politics and the economy as perhaps nothing else could have. I am glad for the understanding and the experiences which have taught me so much.

    Your title was indeed provocative, and painful. As a parent one doesn’t go there willingly!

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Iris. As I mentioned in reply to becwillmylife, I think many of us have learned Stoic ideas while grappling with the problems of life and without having any conception that these ideas were actually formulated into a philosophy a few thousand years ago. I apologize for the title causing you pain, although I suppose the Stoics would reply that the pain of thinking about losing your children was like the pain of an innoculation injection i.e. it is worth it if it prevents a worse pain in the future.

      Reply

      • Iris Weaver Says:

        Actually, Malcolm, I can’t see how thinking about my child being dead would prevent a greater pain if she were to actually die. I’m curious, do you have any children yourself?

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Iris, I do have children but my reply clearly needed a more detailed explanation. I would like to quote extensively from William Irvine’s book on Stoicism as there is no way I can say it more clearly than he does:

          “Seneca describes the negative visualization technique in the consolation he wrote to Marcia, a woman who, three years after the death of her son, was as grief-stricken as on the day she buried him. In this consolation, besides telling Marcia how to overcome her current grief, Seneca offers advice on how she can avoid falling victim to such grief in the future: What she needs to do is anticipate the events that can cause her to grieve. In particular, he says, she should remember that all we have is “on loan” from Fortune, which can reclaim it without our permission— indeed, without even advance notice. Thus, “we should love all of our dear ones …, but always with the thought that we have no promise that we may keep them forever— nay, no promise even that we may keep them for long.” While enjoying the companionship of loved ones, then, we should periodically stop to reflect on the possibility that this enjoyment will come to an end. If nothing else, our own death will end it.”

          Epictetus also advocates negative visualization. He counsels us, for example, when we kiss our child, to remember that she is mortal and not something we own— that she has been given to us “for the present, not inseparably nor forever.” His advice: In the very act of kissing the child, we should silently reflect on the possibility that she will die tomorrow. To see how imagining the death of a child can make us appreciate her, consider two fathers. The first takes Epictetus’s advice to heart and periodically reflects on his child’s mortality. The second refuses to entertain such gloomy thoughts. He instead assumes that his child will outlive him and that she will always be around for him to enjoy. The first father will almost certainly be more attentive and loving than the second. When he sees his daughter first thing in the morning, he will be glad that she is still a part of his life, and during the day he will take full advantage of opportunities to interact with her. The second father, in contrast, will be unlikely to experience a rush of delight on encountering his child in the morning. Indeed, he might not even look up from the newspaper to acknowledge her presence in the room. During the day, he will fail to take advantage of opportunities to interact with her in the belief that such interactions can be postponed until tomorrow. And when he finally does get around to interacting with her, the delight he derives from her company will not be as profound, one supposes, as the delight the first father experiences from such interactions.

      • Iris Weaver Says:

        Ah. It seems that some of what is said by these philosophers is the same as the Buddhist belief in non-attachment, which I have finally come to understand as being able to let things, and people, go at the appropriate times. If we understand that “nothing is forever” (and as a gardener that gets demonstrated to me on an almost-daily basis), then we understand that we need to appreciate who and what is in our lives now, because it may be, or will be, gone at some later time.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Thank you. I agree with you. I think Buddhism is very similar to Stoicism but you don’t need to practice meditation for hours every day to put it into action. Also, I think those of us who are less mystical and more rational in our thinking process would feel more at home with this home-grown western tradition than with Buddhism.

        • Iris Weaver Says:

          Hmmm, well, since I neither read the Stoics, nor spend hours in meditation, I wouldn’t know. I have come to my own understanding of what I wrote through experience, so I assume there are many ways to reach that point of inner equilibrium. And really, I don’t know if I would have gotten there any faster by studying/practicing Buddhism or the Stoics; only time and life experience could bring that understanding home.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Iris, great point. There’s no better testament to a theory about the good life than having learnt the same lessons in the school of hard knocks.

        • Iris Weaver Says:

          Thank you, Malcolm. It certainly makes the hard work feel more worthwhile when I have my experiences validated.

  12. Dapper Dan Says:

    I remember reading somewhere that Thomas Jefferson enjoyed reading the Stoics. It made me want to look into them more but I’ve just never gotten around to it.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      As Steve implied above, Thomas Jefferson may have read the Stoics but he obviously never took their thoughts to heart. He always wanted the latest books and inventions, spent lavishly on things like furniture and wine, continually made changes to the construction of Monticello and died practically bankrupt.

      Reply

  13. swedishpotato Says:

    Great post!

    Having goals and then achieving them is a nightmare. What happens with all that energy and the desire you spend getting there? It’s not a coincidence that Bob Geldof’s autobiography is called “Is That It?”, and the last album by the successful British band Pulp (who had spent years in the doldrums wanting to be famous), is possibly one of the most depressing albums ever released (“This is Hardcore”).

    Regret is a terribly underrated emotion. At least with regret you still get to hold on to your dreams…

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you. Interesting observations. Strangely, Stoics achieved great success in the world (for example, Marcus Aurelius was Emperor) although their philosophy did not encourage ambition. William Irvine suggests this was because of the remarkable self-discipline that they had to practice.

      Reply

  14. swabby429 Says:

    Another benefit of such behavior is that of impeccable ethics.

    Reply

  15. mvschulze Says:

    Malcolm: This is a great place for me to leave this totally unrelated comment, but frankly, I don’t know where else to leave it. Probably an artifact of being over-age But..As part of a technical condition of responding to a nomination, I have listed your enlightening site as a recommendation for the Sunshine Award. It all seems a little hooky, but If you wish to pursue this please see my site at Mvschulze.wordpresss.com under the “Awards” page. 
And, thank you for your time and effort in producing your most enjoyable posts. Sincerely, Mschulze.

    Reply

  16. Ishaiya Says:

    I’m not sure I entirely agree with the stoics’ view of life, negative thinking is negative thinking and should be avoided at all costs if you want to lead a happy and fulfilling life 🙂 But as someone who is all to familiar with treating every day as if it were my last there is much to be said for enjoying what you do have now, as well as still dreaming and thinking big. Great article and an enjoyable read.
    Ishaiya

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Ishaiya. I don’t think the Stoics wanted people to get into an emotional and empathetic frame of mind about losing a relative or friend, rather a gentle reminder to oneself that their loss is always a possibility so we should appreciate friends and loved ones when we have the opportunity.

      Reply

  17. Michele Seminara Says:

    Wonderful post – I never would have guessed that stoics and Buddhists had so much in common! These teachings remind me of the death meditations I practise (which involve imagining sickness, loss of enjoyments, having to leave behind possessions and loved ones, as well as one’s own body). Some people find it maudlin, but like the stoics, I think it is a realistic approach, and one that helps you make the most of life. Thank you for the education!

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you. I believe death meditations are for experienced meditators but stoic negative visualizations can be practiced by anyone. It would be interesting to read a comparison of the two techniques from someone who has experience of both disciplines.

      Reply

      • Michele Seminara Says:

        It would! Although you don’t need to be a particularly experienced meditator to practice these death meditations – it just depends if you have the emotional stomach for them, and if you find them beneficial. Perhaps you are thinking of meditations at the time of death? These require a very advanced level of control over the mind, as you could imagine!. Thanks again for an interesting post.

        Reply

  18. Kavita Joshi Says:

    very thought provoking topic Malcolm…so many times in todays world we forget to be grateful for what we have really and always feel dissatisfied with whatever we get in life as a result…very nice post reflecting the techniques to get back the contentment of life ..thanks for sharing

    Reply

  19. Raunak Says:

    Malcolm,what a delight to have read this. I have always related to Stoic philosophy though sometimes I wish I was Epicurean.
    In India, one of the first thing a person on his path of becoming a “sanyasi”(sage) does is carrying out last rites of his parents. This signifies the ultimate separation of soul from the emotions that enslave us.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Interesting. I suppose if Stoicism represents real wisdom, as I believe it does, then other religions/faith will share many of the same tenets. I have never been very clear as to the difference between the Stoics and the Epicureans. The more I read the more confused I get. Certainly the Epicureans were not as pleasure loving as is thought.

      Reply

      • Raunak Says:

        Epicureans have been misunderstood as pleasure seeking. And I find the difference between the two very subtle indeed. End of the day, I feel every individual should use his own life experiences to develop a customized philosophy to live by.

        Reply

  20. Peggy Hakanson Says:

    I wish I had read this years ago. I lost my first child when I was 19 back in 1976. I lost my second child at 39 back in 1996. Although I loved both of these children, it was harder to deal with the second time around. I thought I was ready for anything to happen, but I wasn’t.

    I now can say that I DO cherish my days with my surviving children. I also try to be there for others in this world who have less of a support system than I do. I want to be able to find some sense in having gone through all of this and what my children went through.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Peggy, thank you for this heartfelt comment. I don’t think there can be any sense in the suffering you and your children went through except to teach us to appreciate every moment with our loved ones.

      Reply

  21. rung2diotimasladder Says:

    I wonder if you shared some of this Stoic advice with your clients as a financial planner? I think a lot of people could use it, and it would help soften the blow of: “Hey, you can’t afford that—but you can be happy with what you’ve got!”

    The philosophical financial planner. I’d hire him.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Well, hire away because the answer is, that for many years now, the best financial planners have developed into life planners, trying to integrate a client’s values and resources to achieve peace of mind and fulfillment in life. This involves applying wisdom, which each planner tries to do in their own way, drawing on their own experience and resources.

      Reply

  22. Aquileana Says:

    I truly enjoyed the reading and liked the way you linked the Stoics’ lessons with REBT and CBT…
    I particularly liked the part when you stated that the stoics taught that destructive emotions such as anger, fear, anxiety, and dissatisfaction are all caused by errors in thinking, and that those ideas would inspire Cognitive Behavioral Therapy main points
    The core of Stoic philosophy was that to have a good and meaningful life you need to overcome your insatiability.
    The idea of Negative Visualization is so powerful…. I think it might lead to a stronger personality as thinking that we might lose valuable things and bonds would help prevent us value them more than we would otherwise.
    As I read this post I thought of Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” and his theory of golden mean which aims to explain the origin, nature and development of virtues which are essential for achieving the ultimate goal, happiness (Greek: Eudaimonia).

    I have once written about this: https://aquileana.wordpress.com/2014/01/25/aristotles-ethical-theory-on-the-concepts-of-virtue-and-golden-mean/

    Excellent post, dear Malcolm… Thanks for sharing and all the best to you. Aquileana 🙂

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Aquileana. You were correct to think of Aristotle’s theory of the golden mean as the Stoics had an alternative theory which they called apatheia. While Aristotle argued that virtue was to be found in the mean between excess and deficiency of emotion (metriopatheia), the Stoics sought freedom from all passions (apatheia). This meant trying to eradicate reactions to emotional or external events which we cannot control.

      Reply

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